We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Beauty hurts”.
In the past, that saying has referred to the pain endured by women for beauty practices like waist-cinching corsets and spending a night in 4-inch heels.
But, have you considered the harmful side effects of the ingredients you’re slathering on your face and body on a daily basis?
Yes, we all have a routine that we’re used to and have down pat. We’ve found products we love that make us feel like a supermodel walking among mere mortals.
But, I bet you’re not gonna feel so hot once you start feeling the side effects of some of those toxic ingredients.
Is that dramatic smokey eye worth the potential cancer risk?
Let’s explore the risks you’re taking by using cosmetic products with certain ingredients. We’ll show you which ones you need to avoid and why. And what’s the reason we started creating cosmetics out of toxins in the first place? The answer may surprise you.
Then, we’ll show you how you can make some simple adjustments to your makeup bag to achieve a look that is pure glamour.
You can click to scroll ahead, we’re going to cover:
- The Problem With Beauty Products in the US
- A Short History of the Cosmetics Industry
- The Top Toxic Offenders
- What’s The First Step?
- Our Recommendations
The Problem With Beauty Products in the US
These days, it can feel like we are being held to impossibly high standards as women.
4” heels have been replaced by 5” heels. Size 2 is the new size 6.
We’re expected to juggle career, family, friends, exercise, diet, and personal growth – all while being Instagram-ready at every turn.
So what do we put on every morning in place of armor? Our fully stocked arsenal of beauty products.
Foundation that smooths every wrinkle and bump, mascara that lengthens lashes, eyeshadows in every appealing color palette. And let’s not even start on the moisturizers, primers, liners, setting sprays, blotting powders… Chances are your makeup bag has at least a dozen products in it for daily use.
And did you know that 60% of what we put on our skin ends up being absorbed by our bodies?
You may be thinking, “So what’s the problem? Surely the FDA or the CDC or the EPA or whomever – approved these for use.”
Well, not exactly.
The European Union has banned over 1,300 chemicals found in cosmetics.
On the other hand, the FDA has woefully banned 8 and restricted 3.
So if my math is correct, that’s 1,289 unrestricted and unregulated chemicals in our cosmetics.
Those chemicals include known and probable carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins that lead to infertility.
So how did we get here?
A Short History of the Cosmetics Industry
“Cosmetics” in some form have been around for centuries, even in the US.
Surprisingly, they started out as more for men – tribal chieftains painted their bodies, and much later, aristocrats powdered their wigs. In the 1800s, “cosmetics” were reserved for the elderly trying to minimize their wrinkles – by way of covering their faces with bacon at night.
Around the world, cosmetics have been in use even longer, primarily in the form of perfumes, face powders, and eyeliners. Lip pigmentation and hair dye were popular in some cultures. The main goal was to appear wealthy, which translated to pale, an indication that you did not work outside in the sun.
But it was during the Industrial Revolution that cosmetics stopped being homemade and started to contain dangerous chemicals. Husbands brought home things like lampblack for their wives to use as eyeshadow.
So how do today’s cosmetics measure up in terms of safety?
Not great – the FDA does have to approve products for keeping contaminants below certain levels, but these levels are essentially arbitrary.
For example, if the acceptable levels of arsenic in lipstick were changed to account for the ingestion of the product through eating and drinking, nearly every lipstick on the market would become illegal to sell.
Many products include:
- Plasticizers -chemicals that keep concrete soft
- Degreasers – used to get grime off auto parts
- Surfactants – that reduce surface tension in water, like in paint and inks
This is because, much like during the Industrial Revolution, many ingredients for cosmetics are acquired as waste product from factories.
So what does this mean for you?
It means we need to make better choices.
The Top Toxic Offenders
But how can we be expected to make better choices without any knowledge on how to do so? We mentioned earlier that there are 1,289 unrestricted chemicals in our cosmetics.
Surely you’re not expected to have that list memorized and whipping your phone out to look up 31 ingredients in the aisle of a store isn’t practical either.
So, what can you do to keep yourself safe?
Here’s our list of the top toxic offenders you should watch out for.
The Top 9 Toxic Offenders
- BHA and BHT
- Coal Tar
- Parfum (a.k.a. fragrance)
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
1. BHA & BHT
WHAT THEY ARE: Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are used as preservatives in a variety of personal care products, cosmetics, and foods. These chemicals are linked to several health concerns including endocrine disruption and organ-system toxicity.
FOUND IN: Lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, antiperspirant/deodorant, fragrance, creams
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: BHA, BHT
HEALTH CONCERNS: Endocrine disruption, organ-system toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, cancer, irritation to the respiratory system, skin depigmentation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Endocrine disruption and reproductive toxicity can affect your ability to get pregnant and your ability to manage stress. Exposing your organs to toxic chemicals can cause damage at the cellular level.
2. Coal Tar
WHAT IT IS: Coal tar is a known carcinogen derived from burning coal. It’s commonly used in food, textiles, cosmetics and personal care products. Experimental studies have found that application of and exposure to coal tar produces skin tumors and neurological damage.
FOUND IN: Shampoos and scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin
HEALTH CONCERNS: Cancer, organ system toxicity
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Coal tar has been associated with cancer of the lung, bladder, kidney, and digestive tract, as well as skin tumors. Neurological damage such as emotional and sleep disturbances, and loss of coordination, are also side effects.
WHAT THEY ARE: Pronounced THAL-ates, these chemicals have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer. While they are banned from products in the European Union, they remain prevalent in U.S. products, especially those marketed to women of color.
FOUND IN: Color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, body washes and hair care products, nail polish and treatment
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP and fragrance
HEALTH CONCERNS: Endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, cancer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Phthalates disrupt hormones and exposure during pregnancy can cause changes to male babies’ genitals and hormone levels. Phthalates have been found in higher levels in infertile couples, reducing the levels of sex hormones. They’ve also been confirmed to grow breast cancer cells.
WHAT IT IS: Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) prevent microbes from growing in water-based products. Common in personal care products, these chemicals are absorbed by the skin and have been linked to cancer and allergic skin reactions.
FOUND IN: Nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, baby shampoo, body soap, body wash, color cosmetics.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.
HEALTH CONCERNS: Cancer, skin irritation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Dermatitis, allergic reactions and rashes, can all spring up after formaldehyde exposure. A link has also been found to leukemia.
WHAT THEY ARE: Parabens are preservatives that prevent the growth of microbes. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals are commonly found in personal care products and foods, and can be absorbed through your skin.
FOUND IN: Shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers and scrubs
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, other ingredients ending in –paraben
HEALTH CONCERNS: Endocrine disruption, cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Skin and breast cancer cells can increase in concentrations. Estrogen and testosterone levels are affected. Pregnant mothers exposed to parabens have reported anxiety and behavioral changes in their offspring.
As with many cosmetics, the “safe” level of parabens is arbitrary, and does not account for exposure through multiple products.
6. Parfum (aka fragrance)
WHAT IT IS: It’s really common to see “fragrance” listed on a label. But, a company does not actually have to report the full list of ingredients that makes up that “fragrance”. This lack of disclosure protects a company’s proprietary blend. However, we do know that some of these chemicals are connected to health issues like cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.
FOUND IN: Most personal care products including sunscreen, shampoo, soap, body wash, deodorant, body lotion, makeup, facial cream, skin toner, serums, exfoliating scrubs and perfume.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Fragrance, perfume, parfum, essential oil blend, aroma.
HEALTH CONCERNS: Cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities. Also linked to migraines, asthma, GI problems, and cardiovascular problems.
There are over 3,000 synthetic chemicals being used under the “parfum” and “fragrance” umbrella terms.
This is only to serve as a brief sample of what you may be exposing your body to!
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: When notified of the possible side effects of fragrance ingredients, most users report that they would cease use immediately – the health risks are too great to ignore.
WHAT IT IS: Often used in personal care products as a moisturizing agent, petrolatum has no known health concerns if properly refined. However, it is not often fully refined here in the U.S. and can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
FOUND IN: Lotions, Cosmetics
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Oil, Mineral Oil and White Petrolatum (refined and safe for use).
HEALTH CONCERN: Cancer.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: PAH contamination is directly related to cancer and tumor development – by up to a 50% increased risk.
WHAT IT IS: Triclosan and triclocarban are antimicrobial agents that were originally created to be a surgical scrub. But, the FDA hasn’t found any evidence that Triclosan is any more effective than your plain ol’ soap and water.
FOUND IN: Antibacterial soaps and detergents, toothpaste and tooth whitening products, antiperspirants/deodorants, shaving products, creams, color cosmetics.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Triclosan (TSC) and triclocarban (TCC)
HEALTH CONCERNS: Endocrine disruption, triclosan-resistant bacteria and antibodies, environmental toxicity (bioaccumulation).
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Triclosan is an endocrine disruptor and a suspected carcinogen that can impact thyroid function and hormone levels. Studies have shown the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Triclosan has also been identified in human milk and umbilical cord blood, suggesting exposure by infants and unborn children when they are least able to defend themselves.
9. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
WHAT IT IS: Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS) is a foaming agent that is commonly used in cosmetic products and industrial cleaners. While SLS is derived from coconuts, it’s contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a toxic byproduct, during the manufacturing process.
FOUND IN: body washes, soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and laundry detergent.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: sodium dodecyl sulfate, sulfuric acid, monododecyl ester, sodium salt, sodium salt sulfuric acid, sodium dodecyl sulfate, aquarex me or aquarex methyl
HEALTH CONCERNS: Cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation and endocrine disruption.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: SLS is often contaminated during the manufacturing process with 1,4 dioxane which is possibly carcinogenic. It can cause issues in the kidneys, liver and central nervous system. If ingested, undiluted SLS can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It is also widely believed to be a major contributor to acne (especially cystic acne) around the mouth and chin.
What’s The First Step?
You may be giving your vanity the serious side-eye right about now.
If you’re anything like me, you probably just grabbed your favorite product and scoured the ingredient list. I know the disappointment you’re feeling if you found some toxic ingredients with non desirable side effects.
Should you pick everything up and throw it away? Some people do. Others ease into new products, focusing on finding a natural replacement to each product they use.
If you’re having trouble with the idea of dumping your favorite products, start slow.
The first products that should go?
- Body wash
These are rubbed all over your body everyday – start with replacing those first.
Then move onto:
- Researching natural toothpaste
- Deodorant alternatives
These are some of the easiest adjustments, and they come with the most benefits.
Next, the makeup overhaul:
- Foundation and/or powder
- Followed by your eye makeup
It may take a few samples to find products that you feel perform to the same level you’re accustomed to, but you’ll get there.
Still Need Help?
Still have questions about the extensive list of questionable chemicals in cosmetics?
Head on over to the Environmental Working Group. You can search nearly every company or specific cosmetic product on their “Skin Deep” List and see their safety grade (ranked 1-5).
Sometimes seeing it can make it easier to walk away from products you’ve been dedicated to. On the flip side, you may be relieved to see that some of your choices haven’t been so bad and don’t need to be replaced.
We’re not trying to scare you into not wearing makeup anymore, we’re all about glamour here! But, it’s time to put your health at the forefront of your choices.
We have a bevy of health-conscious affiliates and recommendations for you!
You’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the products you need to replace.
Start slow, and replace each product one at a time. Do your research and don’t get discouraged when a product doesn’t meet your expectations. Some of the brands below are recommended more highly for specific products.
A great place to begin is with Beautycounter. They’ve gone above and beyond, prohibiting the use of over 1,500 chemicals in their products. We applaud them for their transparency.
But we know you need options. No one company has every product that will work for every woman.
So here’s a list of brands to look into.
Don’t worry, some of them are available at Ulta and Sephora. Many of them offer discounted samples or coupons off of your order, but most are priced in line with brands like MAC.
And what about that expensive (but damaging) product you just bought?
Donate it or throw it away. Metropolitan Ministries will accept open cosmetic and personal care product donations, if you can’t bear to put it in the trash.
A few dollars wasted is better than perpetuating the practice of poisoning yourself from the outside in.
Now let’s get to work on that dramatic smokey eye – with products that love you back.
Which products are you having a hard time of letting go of? Let us know in the comments!